CBR III Review 8: My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy’s newest memoir, My Reading Life, is a meditation on his life and how the books he has read have defined both his career and his personal life. It is a lovely little book, filled with humour and self-deprecation and reflection, in the same vein as all of Conroy’s writing.

Conroy has always been very up-front about his difficult upbringing and the challenges he has faced as an adult, and many of his characters and stories are drawn from his personal experiences. In this book, he repeatedly explores the idea that he writes to explain his life to himself, and reads to explore the world around him. This is a good reminder of why certain motifs are repeatedly explored in his books – the abusive father, the mysterious and long suffering mother, the male protagonist messing up his romantic life and always wanting to rescue people, the lonely life of the military brat, etc. Conroy also offers some insight into his writing style, with an intense love of story, words and adjectives. He amusingly admits he is not able to restrain himself from using his trademark styles and words, a pattern evident throughout this book as well.

A few chapters consist of Conroy expressing love and admiration for a few specific authors and their books, including Margaret Mitchell, Thomas Wolfe and James Dickey. While admiring the authors and their books, he also talks about how they have influenced his own work, which is always interesting to read. The chapter on Thomas Wolfe, in particular, is very funny while being a sincere homage to his literary hero. Conroy is enormously well read, and his descriptions of his library made me a wee bit jealous.

There are many interesting anecdotes in the book as well, and gives some interesting background on how books are sold to retailers. Conroy also is very upfront about his experiences with other writers, including some that are very famous. One notable example is that author Alice Walker was very rude to Conroy when he asked her to sign his book and was expressing admiration for her work – she refused to speak to him at all and he describes Walker as being “as friendly as a cow turd on an altar step.” Conroy has had a very interesting life, and seems to have found himself with an interesting group of friends and aquaintances (his cookbook actually has some great stories in the same vein).

My Reading Life has inspired me to try War and Peace again, as well as Look Homeward, Angel – certainly a nice feeling to be left with after reading a book. I generally enjoy reading books about how other people love books, and I have loved nearly all of Conroy’s work (South of Broad being the exception), so I am an excellent audience for this book. However, this really was a great book that would likely please a wide audience, being part memoir, part tribute to story and how it enriches a life, with a bit of criticism of 20th century literature thrown in for good measure.

CBR III Review 7: Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Annabel is Kathleen Winter’s debut novel, having previously published a collection of short stories and having written scripts for the CBC and Sesame Street. It is the story of a true hermaphrodite born in a tiny community in Labrador, an expansive landscape with constrictive social mores. The child is raised as a boy, as it seems the easiest path to his father Treadway and his doctors, but Wayne’s mother Jacinta and family friend Thomasina (the only people who know the truth) are not convinced and wish Wayne could grow up as something more than just a boy or a girl. In fact, Thomasina calls Wayne “Annabel” as a child, after her daughter that had died, and Jacinta secretly takes care of the daughter she sees in Wayne despite his father’s attempts to make him as masculine as possible. The quiet conflict over Wayne’s gender is kept a mystery from him until there is a medical emergency as a teenager, but the tension is palpable throughout his childhood and results in enormous silences in his family. As Wayne grows towards adulthood, he moves away from home and begins to experiment with his identity, both by giving up the drugs that keep him male and by showing him possible futures that don’t depend on gender.

Despite all the tensions, Wayne tries hard to please both his parents as he grows up, but eventually all three of them feel trapped by the house that they live in. Much of the book is about identity, and it is a challenge for all of the characters, not just Wayne, although Wayne is a wonderful, courageous and entirely relatable character.  Annabel also has wonderfully detailed descriptions about Labrador and parts of St. John’s, in addition to descriptions of lives lived in a wilderness that might not exist in the same way today. Winter also grounds the story with mentions of late 1970s/early 1980s cultural references, including listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 on the radio (in my experience, something rural Canadians counted on for pop music at the time, along with Friday Night Videos) and references to the appropriate sports events and popular candy – the detail is there, but not obvious.

This book is beautifully written and paced, enormously compelling. I have only two complaints, the first being that the story seems to abandon Jacinta for the last third of the novel. Jacinta was central in the first part of the book, but I wonder if Winter kind of wrote herself into a corner with her, out of ideas for how she could grow. It seems strange that she was so central to Wayne’s childhood, but all later parental references were to Treadway and we don’t have any idea about how or where she ended up. My other complaint is with the second secret that was kept from Wayne after his medical emergency. More specific detail might spoil the story, but the physical impossibility of the incident mars a story that otherwise seems so grounded and relatable, and I don’t think that it improves the story.

Annabel has been nominated for several awards, deservedly so. It is an excellent novel, and deals with the subject matter in a non-sensationalist manner. The only other novel I recall dealing with a similar theme is Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex, but I have not read it and cannot compare the two. I highly recommend Annabel.

CBR III Review 6: Matthew Flinder’s Cat by Bryce Courtenay

I was given this book by a friend, who left it on my desk with a note saying “this is a cute story!” I am not sure that I would consider it cute, but it is the first Bryce Courtenay novel I have finished since reading The Power of One.

Matthew Flinder’s Cat is set in Sydney, and centres on a homeless alcoholic man who used to be a very successful lawyer. He meets a young boy who has a very troubled home life, and the two become fast friends. Billy and Ryan bond over the story of Captain Flinder’s cat, a historical figure well known in Australia. When trouble looms, Billy takes a bus to Surfer’s Paradise (for free, as the Sydney municipal government was trying to clear out all the homeless prior to the Olympics), and Ryan’s life goes horribly awry. In an effort to help Ryan and other people he has met along the way, Billy detoxes and tries to save Ryan.

Many of the characters and situations seem a bit cliche to me (Ryan is troubled but exceptional; the policemen are corrupt; Billy is a former lawyer with just the right connections; his roommates in rehab know just where to look; etc) , but the setting is very well drawn. The novel gives a different view of Sydney and its societal problems, which was really kind of interesting, particularly the passing mentions of the city’s attempts to clear away unwanted citizens prior to the Olympics. This is something that was much discussed prior to the recent Vancouver Winter Olympics, but I am not sure how successful either attempt was in the end. Billy’s detox and subsequent rehabilitation under the careful supervision of the Salvation Army was also nicely written, as were the scenes with AA meetings. The book describes the hard work and pain associated with cleaning up, which always seems to be glossed over in movies.

Scattered throughout the book are snippets of the story of Trim the cat, told or written by Billy. The story of the cat and his crew is meant to anchor the book, I think, and illustrate points about bravery and loyalty, but the prose in these sections is florid in comparison to the main text and sometimes slows the central story down. Also, I thought the resolution was a bit too convenient, given how messy the lives of the characters were at the beginning, but that seems to be common to Courtenay novels. I am not sure I would recommend this book, but it wasn’t awful. I suppose it is worth every penny I spent on it.

CBR III Review 5: The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

The Sentimentalists, 2010 Giller Prize winner, has seems to have gotten more press (in Canada, at least) for it’s curious publication complications rather than the story itself. The book was first published by a tiny artisan publishing company that produces books by hand. When it surprisingly won the Giller Prize, it was impossible for Gaspereau Press to produce enough copies to meet demand, but the company initially refused to let a bigger company print the novel, much to the apparent frustration of the author, the booksellers and the reading public. Eventually, Douglas & McIntyre was able to produce a big print run, but it was a fascinating publishing problem that actually caught the eye of mass media, which seems so rare.

Skibsrud is a poet, and this is her first novel. It deals with a daughter fleeing from her life and spending time with her father as he nears the end of his life. He is haunted by his experiences in the Vietnam War, but has never revealed the details of that part of his life with his family or friends. He begins to reveal parts of that history to his daughter, particularly the events surrounding the death of his friend Owen, with whose father the narrator and her father have made a home.

Much of the book seems to focus more on imagery, pacing, and phrasing rather than character. I found the first part of the book slow, with Cormac McCarthy-like sentences that take up entire paragraphs. At one point, the unnamed narrator describes leaving her body while standing on a street corner, and I had to reread the passage a few times to decide if she had died and was having some type of out of body experience, or just some type of mental break. However, once the story focuses on her father and his story, the focus tightens and the story becomes more compelling. I suspect the change in pacing is deliberate, but it serves to make the book feel rather uneven to me. When the book first won the Giller, I recall one reviewer calling the book “overwritten,” which might be an apt description.

Some of the imagery in the book is lovely, and there are some really nice moments scattered throughout dealing with the relationship of a young woman coming to peace with her relationship with her father and his impending death. Near the end of the book, when the father phones his daughter to read her a poem he is trying to write, she realizes that “…for the first time in a long time, then, it felt uncomplicated. It was just love, after all, that I felt for my father, and that wasn’t so hard.”  Small sequences like that feel true, and less like the author is trying too hard to write a great novel. The descriptions of his war experiences were also well realized, likely because Skibsrud based them on her own father’s real life experiences.

This book is rather short, running 218 pages in the Douglas & McIntyre edition, and the second half of the book is a more enjoyable read than the first. However, I enjoyed it overall and think that Skibsrud is a promising novelist.